Is Duke football facing a must-win game this Friday night against North Carolina A&T?
Sure seems that way.
“I think every football team faces that after a loss,” David Cutcliffe told the media Monday. “We use the term ‘don’t let one loss become two.’ You can’t hang your head. But you also have to address what led to the loss. If we don’t get better on the practice field, if we don’t change what we’re doing on the practice field, then don’t expect different results. These guys haven’t won much in the last two years. So right now, it’s time to get that boost of confidence and energy that comes with winning.”
What led to Duke’s loss last Friday against Charlotte?
Football coaches have an expression that a handful of plays decide most games. You just don’t know when they’re going to come.
And Duke made some of those plays, mostly at the feet of Mataeo Durant.
But the home team made more of them.
“Six plays defensively gave up 218 yards,” Cutcliffe noted. “You have to seize those moments. Some of them were when we could have gotten off the field. Offensively, the opportunity to score points was there throughout the game and we didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”
Duke left 14 points on the field, seven when Jarett Garner dropped a easy touchdown pass from Gunnar Holmberg and seven more when Holmberg fumbled at the Charlotte one-yard line on second down.
Cutcliffe took responsibility for Holmberg’s fumble.
“I’ll take credit for the fumble. I can hear Coach [Johnny] Majors yelling at me from his grave. He was one of the best at when you’re in traffic and Gunnar has the ball here [holds ball in front of chest] that as soon as you feel anything in traffic, you use your other hand to secure the ball. I hadn’t coached that well enough.”
Then again, Holmberg has been playing quarterback since he was seven.
Cutcliffe generally gave Holmberg high marks and feels that getting that first college start under his belt will pay dividends.
But there areas that need work.
“There were four or five situations where you’ve got to measure the down and know the down and know on third down whether we’re going to play for it on fourth down and understand circumstances on when you can not afford to ever take a loss.”
Cutcliffe also mentioned that Holmberg’s receivers—other than Jake Bobo-did not do a good job getting separation against Charlotte and that has to improve.
But it was Duke’s porous defense that came in for most of the questioning.
Let’s start with the pass rush. Duke had nine quarterback hurries on Charlotte’s Chris Reynolds but only one sack, for a negligible loss. Duke forced a fumble on that play but Charlotte recovered.
Reynolds is a veteran with quick feet and a knack for extending plays. But one sack?
“He had something to do with it, because he really is cat quick. But I was a bit surprised because we played our quarterbacks live more in camp than we ever have. We were able to sack our quarterbacks defensively because I wanted us to get better at finishing [our] pass rush. We have really made an emphasis on all of our pass-rush drills to finish and tackle the robot dummy. So, again, I’m surprised. It’s not okay to get hurries that turn into escapes that turn into big plays.”
One of the reasons those escapes turned into big plays was the poor play of Duke’s veteran secondary.
“Tackling, I thought the biggest issue was we left our feet. We didn’t run through people. We spend a lot of time [on] tackling drills. We only had the two scrimmages. Some of that showed up in scrimmages. On this team we’ve got a lot of competition and it you don’t tackle well, somebody else will. That’s where we are right now. We can’t give easy-access plays but we also can’t give extra yards. You’ve got to tackle well to play good defense.”
But what if the guy who can’t tackle well is replaced by another guy who can’t tackle well? Cutcliffe continued to insist that Duke has lots of competition for playing time, no one is hanging their heads and the problems that we saw last week are correctable errors.
“The whole focus has to be from every one of us, I’m trying to win the game on this play. If it is to be, it’s up to me. That’s how you play as a team. You’re doing your role, your part. Consistency is the first element of anything being really good or ever being great.”
Duke defeated A&T 45-13 in 2019. A&T was a MEAC powerhouse then but this is their first season in the Big South, which also is an FCS conference. They lost to Furman of the Southern Conference 29-18 in their opener.
A&T is a proud program, with a history of success at a lower level and in the best tradition of coach-speak, Cutcliffe made them sound like the ‘72 Dolphins. But they lack the resources of Duke or any ACC school. This should be an opportunity to Duke to regain its mojo and turn around the season.
A must-win game.